By Grażyna Baranowska, Begüm Başdaş and Natalie Welfens
Since August 2021, hundreds of people on the move have attempted, some of them successfully, to enter the EU by crossing the border from Belarus to Poland. At least eleven died. Politicians and the media have discussed the events largely in a language of warfare, blackmailing and diplomatic crisis. In this blog post, we argue that this framing has political implications, as it obscures the deadlock of EU asylum policies, the legal obligations that should, in principle, apply, and the rights and needs of people on the move. We conclude that the overall framing of events also crucially shapes what gets proposed as possible solutions, and what does not.
The situation: How has it all started?
The complex situation on the Polish-Belarusian border started in August 2021, when groups of people tried to cross over to Poland from Belarus. In particular, 32 Afghans made the news, as they were stranded in the no-man’s land between the two countries, near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny,. Polish border guards refused their entry and Belarus would not allow them to go back. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ordered interim measures on the 25 August 2021 to provide people with food, water, clothing, medical care, and temporary shelter. Polish and Belarusian authorities were arguing that the 32 Afghans are on the territory of the respective other state – and as such, do not fall under their responsibility. However, a digital investigation by Amnesty International has revealed that they were pushed back to Belarus by Polish forces.
Since August, at least 11 people have died due to the harsh conditions, with hypothermia and starvation being the leading causes. On 2nd September, Poland declared a State of Emergency at its borders with Belarus and barred journalists, NGOs, and medical aid from entering the area. This makes it extremely difficult to report potential human rights violations in the area, including pushbacks. The events escalated on 8th November, when Belarusian authorities pushed around 1.000 people on the move towards the Polish border, to which Poland responded by deploying additional border guards, police, and military in the region. People who tried to cross to Polish territories were dispersed with tear gas and water cannons. Belarus relocated most of the people camped at the border to a nearby warehouse releasing the immediate tension. While some returned to their home countries, many are still trying to cross to EU territories to seek protection.
Observers across Europe deploy a range of categorizations to denote the people at the border – asylum seekers, (irregular) migrants, refugees, or a mixture of the two latter. Such terms contain judgements as to whether or not people are entitled to protection in the EU and if their border crossings are legitimate – despite the absence of asylum procedures and reliable information. We therefore opt for the term “people on the move”, which highlights mobility without a priori judging its rightfulness and the basic fact that this is a discussion about people, human beings.
The dominant framing: Weaponization of Migration and Warfare
In European media, the situation gets frequently portrayed as a diplomatic conflict and as a new form of warfare, in which people on the move are `weaponized´. Major international newspapers largely agree on a narrative where Lukashenko, actively organized a campaign to invite refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to come to Belarus with tourist visas and takes them to the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The Polish government as well as other European leaders have described this tactic as “hybrid attack”, “weaponized migration” and “human trafficking”. A recent caricature with the title “Lukaschenko’s attack on Europe” in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel illustrated this with a Kalashnikov that uses people as bullets.
The framing of these migratory movements as “state-led smuggling” and “a criminal act” further contributes to an image of migrants as passive playthings in a political power game, as the statement of German member of parliament Lars Castellucci (SPD) illustrates
“We will master this crisis, because at its core this is not a question of migration. This is about a criminal, who takes people to this border. […] It is a terrible crime of this dictator Lukashenko. I call it state-led trafficking – this is a category we have not legally captured, yet.”
In a similar vein, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen defined the events at the Poland-Belarus border as a “hybrid attack, not a migration crisis.”
We argue it is neither. Evidently, incentivizing people to move based on wrong promises needs to be called out and condemned. Yet, von der Leyen’s statement also points to the main issue with how the events at the border are being portrayed: as events that are not about migration. Thereby, we argue, the debate obscures a number of aspects that are centrally shaping the situation at the Polish-Belarussian border: (1) the deadlock of EU`s migration and asylum regime; (2) the legal obligations on the ground; (3) the rights and needs of people on the move.
Obscuring the deadlock of EU’s migration and asylum system
Clearly, Lukashenko seeks to pressure the EU and its Member States. Yet, the fact that the EU remains vulnerable to such political pressures calls for a more profound analysis of what makes the regular occurrence of such situations possible in the first place: the deadlock of the EU’s migration and asylum system and, as a consequence, the dependency on externalized migration control to third countries.
Since the EU’s long summer of migration of 2015, the EU’s and its Member States’ migration and asylum policies have mainly focused on keeping the number of arrivals to the EU low. With the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) being in a deadlock for years, the EU and its Member States stepped up their efforts to externalize border control through migration deals with third countries. The EU-Turkey Statement of 2016 that promised visa liberalizations, resuming EU accession talks, and humanitarian support to Turkey if the country would seal its land and sea borders was presented as the blueprint of this approach.
The construction of a threatening narrative that large numbers of people are trying to enter EU, almost irrespective of their entitlement to protection, is at the same time what drives such deal making and what constitutes the EU’s weak spot in the eyes of its partners. Staging what Nicolas de Genova calls a “border spectacle” then works as an effective tactic for other countries to trigger the EU and at the same time highlights the fragility of this policy approach. As long as there is no functioning EU internal system of responsibility sharing and reforms of the Common European Asylum System, including the Dublin system, do not move forward, the Union will remain easily pressured by the authoritarian leaders it so heavily relies on to halt arrivals.
The leaders of third countries that are usually governed by authoritarian regimes are depicted as the sole actors to blame for “blackmailing” the EU. Lukashenko for instance gets characterized as the dictator and criminal, who instrumentalizes people on the move in his revenge for EU sanctions. However, using migration as a “threat” is nothing new and has been used as a tool to pressure EU for over a decade by countries such as Libya, Morocco, and Turkey. The EU continually denies this reality and engages in politically motivated, short-sighted, ad-hoc deals with third countries like the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement, widely known as the EU-Turkey Deal.
Clearly, it takes two to tango. Belarus is indeed responsible for serious human rights violations. But the EU, instead of learning from past experiences, actively participates in warmongering narratives, allows authoritarian regimes’ efforts to “destabilize” the EU through migration and criminalizes people on the move, rather than sending a clear message by adhering to its values of rule of law.
Obscuring legal obligations
The politically complex situation does not however influence the legal situation on the ground. Regarding people who have crossed the border into Poland and asked for asylum, Poland’s obligations are crystal-clear: the asylum claims need to be processed and those who have submitted their claims cannot be returned to another country – including their country of origin –, as long as their asylum claims are being processed. While those obligations do not apply in the same manner to people who have not crossed the border, we cannot assess how many of those trapped in Belarus were pushed back by Poland in violation of international law. Poland also has obligations with regards to the people who have entered Polish territory, but who have been returned to Belarus without their asylum claims being processed. Those actions have been justified through a securitization narrative, by arguing that Poland needs to defend its borders and stand up to Lukashenko.
As has been widely reported, Poland is not only pushing people back in violation of international law, but also has legalized the practice in domestic law. There are currently two legal frameworks legalizing pushbacks in force in parallel, each containing different regulations. An executive regulation from August 2021 based on COVID-regulations, allows the return of anyone not fitting into any of the categories of persons allowed to cross the border from Russia, Belarus or Ukraine, which implicitly also includes people who entered irregularly. An Act of Parliament from October 2021 allows the return of persons apprehended immediately after crossing the border irregularly. If pushbacks take place within the second framework, they result in a prohibition to re-enter the Schengen area. Both those regulations violate Poland’s international obligations.
Obscuring the rights and needs of people on the move
In the current discourse the mobility of people gets exclusively discussed in the criminalizing frames of “smuggling” and “trafficking”. First, this framing obscures that, once on EU territory, people have the right to have their asylum claim processed and are protected against refoulement, i.e. to be sent back to countries were they might face a real risk of torture, persecution or serious human rights violations. Second, the “weaponized migration” discourse denies people’s agency as human beings. It depicts people as objects that can be carried, pulled, and pushed, but not as human beings who have rights. What this sidelines, however, is the question why people are there, why they took the risk and whether or not they might be entitled to protection.
As the “hybrid warfare” and “weaponized migration” rhetoric dominates the understanding of the current situation at the borders of Poland and Belarus, the EU’s response to resolve the tensions continues to repeat the mistakes of the past – such as, more sanctions against Belarus, pressuring third country airlines into agreements to block travel routes, further negotiations with countries of origin and transit to return people from Belarus or efforts to externalize and direct asylum application processes to third countries. The other and more imminent factors at play, commitments to the EU’s legal obligations, guarantees of access to asylum procedures, and ensuring the basic rights of people on the move, get paid lip service at best. This highlights the politics of framing the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border in particular ways, which foregrounds some but obscures other aspects. What this shows is that this situation is neither a “migration crisis” nor “hybrid warfare”. Such framings undermine a focus on migration and asylum policy making, the rule of law and the protection of human rights, which would be needed for not only humane but also sustainable solutions. In a recent blog, the EU Commissioner Johansson said, “the monstrous tactics of ‘Europe’s last dictator will be clear for the world to see.” For this to happen and to ensure it will last, the EU should not follow the tools utilized by authoritarian regimes, but rather assume its self-proclaimed leadership to enforce sustainable migration and asylum policies that will prioritize access to protection. Only such efforts would seal the right “deal.”
A shorter version of this piece has been published in the blog Border Criminologies.